The New Jersey Devils won their first road game of the 2011-12 season by defeating the Nashville Predators 3-2 in a shootout. The score and the fact it ended in a shootout doesn't begin to grasp what happened in the game. This game that had it all. Both teams combined for 72 shots on net. Both teams scored a power play goal. Both teams got an even strength goal. Both teams took stupid penalties that hurt their team. Both teams combined for 37 penalty minutes in the first two periods. Both teams got whistled for no penalties after the third period. Both teams had stretches where they were bossing their opponents around. Both teams played in all kinds of situations: 5-on-5, 4-on-4, 4-on-3, 5-on-4, and 5-on-3. That's a lot in of itself.
But, wait, there's more! Here's the quick and dirty summary of how the game went on.
It started off great for the Preds, with two goals in the first period and looking like they would be in control. The Devils made noise but no tangible progress midway through the game, thanks to Pekka Rinne playing out of his mind. True to the adage, "if you don't succeed; try, try again," the Devils kept at it and put up two goals of their own in the third period. The Devils survived a late surge and overtime to force a shootout. There, the victory was sealed thanks to Ilya Kovalchuk, Zach Parise, Johan Hedberg, and the crossbar on Hedberg's goal. There were ups, downs, and a whole lot of oscillation in between.
This game was certainly a trip for Devils fans; and those same fans should be proud of the team's performance tonight. So should the Devils players and coaches themselves. They didn't pack it in after going down 2-0 early in the game nor when it seemed like a getting a puck past Rinne was going to be like squeezing blood from a stone. No, they kept pushing the puck ahead, they kept firing shots, and they were rewarded. It's the sort of performance that comes from a team with character, self-belief, and optimism. While I would have liked to have avoided a come-from-behind result altogether, I'm most pleased to see early on in 2011-12 that the Devils aren't going to lay down for anyone.
I'll be frank, I'm not sure I can cover everything in this game; but I'll do my best after the jump to hit the important parts. For the opposition's take on this game, please check out On the Forecheck.
The Stats: The NHL.com Game Summary | The NHL.com Event Summary | The NHL.com Play by Play | The Time on Ice Shift Charts | The Time on Ice Head to Head Ice Time Charts | The Time on Ice Corsi Charts
The Highlights (Update): Hey, NHL.com finally got their highlight video up. Unfortunately, it's from the MSG+2 feed. Anyway, this video is loaded with goals, hits, and saves, so go watch it:
David Clarkson - The Goat: David Clarkson very nearly became the goat tonight. In the first period, in chasing down a dumped-in puck, he hit Ryan Suter into the end-boards right in the numbers. It was a bad hit, a stupid hit, and a dangerous hit. He was quickly hit himself from behind by Shea Weber, creating a pileup. After the refs sorted everything out, Clarkson got a 5 minute roughing major and Weber only got 2. I felt it should have been matching; but it's moot since Clarkson was an idiot for contacting Suter from behind.
Anyway, this really hurt the Devils' flow in the game, which was going pretty well at even strength. Now, the Devils had to play 4-on-4 for 2 minutes and then kill off 3 minutes. Sergei Kostitsyn tripped up Patrik Elias to help burn off some more time; but ultimately Nashville had a lengthy power play. They essentially scored on it twice, officially only once. Colin Wilson re-directed Kostitsyn's shot from the slot up and over Hedberg for the first goal. That was just a bad break; there wasn't much Hedberg or the penalty killers could have done on it. The second goal was scored a few seconds after Clarkson's penalty ended; but it was set up just before. Jerred Smithson was on Hedberg's right flank at the net. Jordin Tootoo faked his shot, slid a pass to Smithson, and he stashed it into the net. Andy Greene was covering someone else in front and Hedberg had no chance on the shot. The root cause of those goals was Clarkson's moronic penalty. Thanks a lot, #23.
When you also consider he whiffed on a loose puck in front of an empty net early in the first period, it only serves to make Clarkson more of a goat.
David Clarkson - The Hero: Like the team as a whole, Clarkson didn't let that get to him. He put his head down and went to work. For Clarkson, that meant shots and quite a few of them. That one heinous miss aside, Clarkson was absolutely robbed on 3 of his 4 shots by Rinne and by the post on another. While Devils fans would like to see someone else in the middle on the first power play unit, Clarkson did his job fairly well in that regard. He didn't shoot the puck from just wherever, he shot from good positions at good times. If it wasn't for that major penalty, then we would have had a more favorable opinion of his night just on that alone.
Instead, Clarkson can be called a hero tonight as he scored the Devils' second goal in the third period. Mattias Tedenby deserves a lot of credit for it. He stole the puck away from a Predator from behind and drove into the slot. He had the good sense to see Clarkson driving with him to his right and feathered a soft pass to him. Clarkson had his chance to redeem himself (to a point) and he made the most of it. He slid the puck between Rinne's five-hole and the comeback was complete. It was his first goal of the season and it couldn't have come in a better time. While I'm still not happy about his hit on Suter, I'm glad that he scored such an important goal. Hopefully, it'll lead him to more productive days.
Goaltending Dynamos: Johan Hedberg had a lot more work to do tonight, making 29 out of 31 saves and making one more in the shootout. The Predators started off hot, they pounded him on the power play with 7 shots against, and they were fierce near the end of the game. Let me go into that in more detail.
In a near-repeat of the third period of Thursday's game, the Devils were outshooting the Predators 12-3 at one point. By the time the third period ended, the Predators were only outshot 14-11. Nashville really wanted to avoid the Devils from tacking on a third goal, so they upped their offensive pressure and just bombed away on net. They were very close to scoring, with a few shots and rebounds either going just wide or denied by the quick legs of Hedberg. The Predators looked more active in overtime, forcing Moose to make two huge stops; though officially, that's all the Preds mustered. He also had 3 one-on-one situations to deal with. Hedberg denied Kostitsyn on a penalty shot; made an easy-looking stop on Cal O'Reilly on his shootout attempt; and didn't have do anything to Matt Halischuk's attempt as the former Devil prospect hit the crossbar. Moose wasn't just solid, he made important stops to keep the Devils in it. Also, the goals against weren't his fault at all.
While Moose was crucial, Pekka Rinne was crucial-er. From the second period to about half-way through the third period, the Devils were mostly bossing the Nashville skaters around. Sure, the Predators had their good shifts and a few good rushes; but it was mostly New Jersey driving the play. The Devils were down 2-0 for most of this stretch, so it's understandable that they would put up a few more shots than Nashville. Yet, the Devils were really piling it on - achieving 20 shots on net past half-way the second period and past 30 early in the third period. Every Devils skater except for Cam Janssen had a shot on net. The Devils tore through the Predators that badly. Rinne bailed them out, though. Rinne was forced to move, dealt with screens, had Devils crash hard to the crease, and fought off many rebounds. Nashville was fortunate to hold off a hungry Devils lineup as long as they did thanks to one man: Rinne. He was absolutely fantastic and it took a lot to beat him. Treasure his performance, Predators fans.
Congratulations! It's a Power Play Goal! Against A Goalie!: I've covered Clarkson's goal, so let's talk about the Devils' first goal. Believe it or not, it was on the power play. A 5-on-3 power play. The Devils enjoyed a chunk of 5-on-4 time (2 opportunities, 4:34) and 4-on-3 time (2 opportunities, 2:32). They only needed 7 seconds of a two man advantage to get their first puck past Rinne and into the net.
The man responsible? Ilya Kovalchuk. He fired a wonderful wrist shot from above the high slot. How did it get past Rinne? Easy: he never saw it. Zach Parise applied a perfect screen. I say it was perfect since Kovalchuk had a clear shooting lane that Rinne couldn't possibly see. It got the Devils on the board in this game and it was the team's first power play goal against a goaltender. Well done.
In general, the power play had a good night. Not only did they score, but they got 7 other shots on net in various situations. Parise was a stud there with 3 of them. The units are showing improvement.
Ilya Kovalchuk Deserves a 5-Day Break: Kovalchuk played over 29 minutes on Thursday and he played 32:04 tonight. The man must be exhausted! Good thing he doesn't have to play until Friday.
Double-shifting in place of Cam "Less Than 3 TOI" Janssen, the guy was motoring all night long. What's more is that he was quite effective. He put 7 shots on net, got blocked 3 times, missed the net twice, and set up several more shots on both the power lay and at evens. The man was a Corsi machine, finishing with a team-leading +16 tonight. Whereas Thursday's game against the Kings was frustrating, Kovalchuk was a delight to watch this evening. Oh, and his shootout goal was absolutely sick, nasty, tasty, dirty, and awesome. I would attempt to combine those adjectives into one word, but it's late and I'm not going to try. Sorry. Overall, I think he was the Devils' best skater tonight.
The Match-Up Game: As a whole, what really helped Kovalchuk, Jacob Josefson (+15, 2 SOG), and Nick Palmieri (+15, 1 SOG) was who they were matched up against. They didn't get much of Shea Weber and Ryan Suter. No, they mostly saw the defensive pairing of Jonathan Blum and Kevin Klein and the line centered by Nick Spaling (Tootoo-Spaling-Smithson). Clearly, the Josefson line beat their brains in when it came to Corsi and Fenwick. Kovalchuk was the main man on offense, but Josefson and Palmieri were quite good in supporting them this evening.
So who did Weber and Suter draw? The Elias line. In terms of Corsi, Parise, Patrik Elias, and Petr Sykora all didn't have good nights. They went up against Nashville's stud defensmen the most as well as their top line in David Legwand, Wilson, and Kostitsyn. If you felt that #9 and #26 weren't doing too much at even strength, then there's your answer. They got the toughest possible match-up for most of the time at evens, and they lost by a good margin. Suter and Weber combined for 11 shots (seriously), so the backchecking forwards didn't get as much coverage on them as they probably should have. The Legwand line combined for 9 shots of their own. In retrospect, I almost want to say that the Elias line could have done a better job at defending. Then again, it was Nashville's top unit. I'm not so certain another line would have had more success at driving the play against them.
As an aside, Sykora really suffered in general outside of Corsi. He wasn't keeping up with the play all that well. In the third period, Peter DeBoer switched him to center Tedenby and Clarkson while moving Dainius Zubrus to play right wing on the first line. It was a decent adjustment (Zubrus set up a close shot opportunity) until Nashville really turned up their offensive aggression late in the period. At that point, there wasn't much for the Devils, though.
Impressively, the Devils as a team finished at +9 even with Nashville's late flurry. The third line did OK, the fourth line wasn't horrible (though Kovalchuk carried them), and the defense was mostly above water as driven by Henrik Tallinder and Mark Fayne. That pairing got so positive in Corsi namely because they mostly played behind the Josefson line who really drove the Devils forward at evens. While I really enjoyed how the Josefson line played tonight, I'm left with a question. Why did Barry Trotz keep Suter & Weber and/or the Legwand line against the Elias line? I'm glad he did, as the Devils' second line really shined. I'm just surprised Trotz never made that adjustment for too long.
Network Blues: You know what would have made this game better to watch? The actual picture. The game was on MSG+2, so that means it wasn't in HD. It sucks, but it's been that way as long as the Dolans want it. I've learned to accept it. The production was worse as the picture had a blue tint to it and it was made to look like it was dark in the arena. HD would have helped, but so would have making color and white balance adjustments.
Worst of all, viewers missed some of the play due to commercials at times. The commentators were often faded or cut off in mid-sentence to go to them, which is annoying; but it's down right poor to miss part of the actual game because of it. That's just awful by MSG. It's 2011, why are we dealing with this garbage? Sure it didn't happen every time, but it happened more than once. Thankfully, there wasn't anything important missed; but no one could have assumed that given how action was going on in this game. Hopefully, future telecasts on MSG+2 will be improved - even if it's in SD.
Obstruction Reduction: Clarkson's hit on Suter alone was terribly dumb. Yet, the Devils did do well in avoid taking penalties for obstruction purposes (e.g. hooks, trips, slashes, etc.). The only other calls on players they got were for fighting, unsportsmanlike conductt for trying to start something when the refs instructed them not to (note to Eric Boulton: the man in stripes is important and you should listen when he says stuff); and a matching roughing call. The Devils did take a really annoying too many men on the ice call near the end of the second period. It's progress of sorts, given the first few games, I suppose.
Thanks for the Penalties, Predators: Nashville thankfully took a good share of dumb penalties on their own. They helped the Devils out, too. Smithson took the first of the game by hooking Josefson down early on. Kostitsyn took two: the first was a lazy trip on Elias and the second was a lazy slash on Greene. Patric Hornqvist returned to action and hit Anton Volchenkov's face with a stick during Nashville's power play for the Devils' too many men call. Shea Weber added a second hit from behind with a cross-check on Elias while Hornqvist was in the box. The last two were huge in retrospect as it not only wiped out their own man advantage, but the Devils got a power play going into the third period. It became a 5-on-3 once the too many men call was served and then Kovalchuk unloaded that fateful wrist shot that beat a screened Rinne.
Shootout Magic: Here's a fun, final fact: the Devils are perfect in shootouts. 4 attempts, 4 (incredibly gorgeous) goals, 4 stops (saves and misses), and they helped the Devils get 4 points in their last two games.
It won't last forever. Likewise, the Devils won't always comeback from an early deficit. Still, it's worth appreciating all the same. Especially now that they are 3-1 for the season.
Audio from Peter DeBoer (Update #2): Kevin emailed me the following links to DeBoer speaking after the game. He got them from Buddy Oakes at Preds on the Glass. Thanks Buddy and Kevin. Both link directly to MP3 files, so keep that in mind: DeBoer Audio #1 and DeBoer Audio #2.
Those are my thoughts on this game. I hope I covered as much as I could. What did you think of the Devils' performance tonight? Are you proud that this team came from behind to get at least a point out of it? Are you pleased the power play got a goal past a goalie - especially on a 5-on-3? Do you see Clarkson as a goat, a hero, or something in-between after this game? What do you want the Devils to improve on for next week's game against San Jose? Please leave your answers and other thoughts on this game in the comments. Thanks to everyone who commented and read during the Gamethread, those on Twitter who followed along with @InLouWeTrust, and, of course, thank you for reading.